Sunday, November 29, 2015

Muslim women in Montreal by Celine Leduc edited by Norman Simon

My first encounter with a Muslim woman was about 45 years ago at a friend’s house.  I was under the impression because of ignorant journalists that Muslims and Jews hated each other. One of my friends (Jewish and Israeli) had invited me to help her prepare a small party. We were going to play cards which meant lots of talk and a feast. The hostess had food that was filling, appealing and plentiful, the secret of a successful party. The leftovers were distributed when guests were leaving. 

By then I had been properly trained, and she knew I could make falafel, cut vegetables for each dish be it a salad or to dip in hummus.  We had some fresh pita and some was roasted in the oven and served warm and a bit spicy and crispy.

Finally, for desert, we had baklava and good “Turkish” coffee. So I went to her house the day before, because some salads had to marinate. I slept over and the next morning, we were cooking up a storm.  We started by making the hummus and then the falafel and all the salads. Yes, my vegetables were cut in small pieces, my garlic properly crushed and the parsley chopped finely. Onions were marinated that same day with a bit of salt and lemon juice. For the falafels, the tomatoes were sliced paper thin, so were the cucumbers. We made a cabbage salad the night before because the cabbage and onions had to marinate in the lemon and olive oil overnight for flavor and texture. It was flavored with garlic (roasted and raw) and various spices and herbs. Taste and presentation were so important and the pride of all women because we liked to show off our culinary skills, To our mind, hospitality is central to the tradition. Coffee and baklava was to be served last.

Two tables were set up, one on which to play cards, and the other as a buffet that included the all the various salads, falafel, hummus, tzatziki with pita bread and the seasoned crispy pita.  The buffet was dairy and kosher hence, there was no meat so everyone could eat and enjoy. No wine or alcohol was served because a few Muslim women were coming over. They would eat kosher food, but no alcohol.  Cultural etiquette demanded that all guest were to be respected be it dietary needs or religiously. Muslim women were as respectful when their turn came and so were Greek Orthodox women. When they invited Jewish women they went out and bought serving dishes in foil and thick paper plates, to respect dietary kosher law.  The cups for coffee were in fine porcelain to serve the coffee or tea. 

The women came in and introduced themselves; one woman came from Alexandria and was a descendant of Alexander the Great, and she was Greek Orthodox.  Another woman from Yemen was Muslim and a descendant of the Prophet. Yet another Muslim woman was from Iraq. My friend was originally from Yemen was Jewish and had moved to Israel.  As for me, I was born in Canada, Irish and French origins and brought up Catholic.  Religion was a plus and not a problem.
Culture and tradition united the women and the food was known and loved by all, as the hostess made sure that each person had a special dish, such as tzatziki for the woman from Greece and the soft pita.  Hummus, falafel and salads everyone loved. Baklava was Greek and Turkish in origin but all knew it and loved it. Some was flavored with orange water, others with rose water, and honey syrup was used in both cases. The coffee was interesting as I was told the following: Turkish coffee was served to Jewish women, Greek coffee to the woman who was Greek and Arabic coffee to our guests from Yemen and Iraq. Each coffee is similar, but prepared a bit differently due to the technique of boiling and sweetening and the serving.  As a Canadian, I could not see the difference and wondered, "Why so much fuss? Make drip coffee."  My friend told me, "No we do not drink American coffee when we get together, you know that we need to have good coffee." She then explained it is out of respect for the women - Greece had been attacked by the Turks, and they had a war with the Arabs. The Arabs were defeated by the Turks and the Greeks. but Jews had been well treated by the Turks during the period of the Ottoman Empire. 

If you have a friend that is Armenian, serve them Arabic Coffee as they were invaded by both the Turks and the Greeks. So much to remember and to think of when inviting people.  Mediterranean culture is complex and diverse, and it seemed to me that women had found a way to get along and be friends based on respect for each other and knowing one another’s history. Food well prepared, served, and prepared with lots of love and caring, was the solution.  A bit too much caring when it came to eating made these card games interesting and very festive.

Women were great at offering food; actually food was not only offered but pushed on the guest. Have this dish, "You did not eat," and, "You do not like the food," was repeated by every hostess. "Do not be shy, eat, come on you have to eat, try this dish. I made it for you.  Let me make you something you like. Eat, come eat, you are not eating enough."  

If my plate was not full enough, one of the women would add more food. Now, if I happened to say I liked a specific dish, she would go and make some for me and would make sure I had enough for a whole week. At times food fights verbal fights would go on until the guest was so full we would need to go out for a long walk and fast for the rest of the day.  Some women gave me fantastic advice: When you come to an event or card game, do not eat breakfast and you will not to have supper, just enjoy the food. 

Culturally, I found out that to be polite in some groups like in Tunisia or some parts of Iraq, you had to refuse three times before you accepted food. In Egypt, Yemen, and other countries, you had to have seconds and even a third portion to be polite. 

Etiquette and cultural knowledge is what binds women together - it is their strength. Food matters as it is part of hospitality, The saints that women go and pray to in order to ask favors also matter.  Saints were saints they could be Jewish, Christian or Muslim as each saint had a specific role to play in the life of women. 

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